Your pessimism pea

How do you rate yourself on the pessimism scale? Do you look at a cloudy sky and think, “Oh dear, the Garden really could have used some sunshine today”? Or do you think, “Yay, clouds, I love it when it rains”? When someone gives you an unexpected gift do you find yourself thinking, “What are they after?” or do you think, “Gosh people are wonderful”? There is virtually no life circumstance or event that can’t be looked at in more than one way but what is it that determines how you view the world? There is a whole gamut of psychological and genetic components to this but a new study has for the first time found the part of your brain that is involved in predicting bad things will happen.

In the new study, subjects had MRI scans taken of their brain while they were shown a random series of pictures followed by a set of good or bad outcomes (an electric shock, losing money, winning money or neutral).

Tracking of brain activity showed that when people saw pictures associated with painful electric shocks, a part of brain called the habenula activated, while it did not for pictures that predicted winning money. The habenula is half the size of a pea and consists of two nuclei that lie on either side of the pineal gland.

Throughout the study, subjects were also asked to press a button to make sure they were paying attention. According to the researchers, people were slower to press the button when the picture was associated with getting shocked, and the slower people responded, the more reliably their habenula tracked associations with shocks. This shows a crucial link between the habenula and motivated behaviour, which may be the result of dopamine suppression.

The study also showed that the habenula responds more the worse an experience is predicted to be. It is just possible that the habenula might play a role in the depression and expectation of negative experiences that features in depression. Potentially, this could mean that the habenula could become a focus for depression treatment.

It is only theorising but it could also relate to people feeling more or less pessimism. Perhaps instead of telling people to “chill out” and “look on the bright side” we may one day be encouraging them to “tone down your habenula, man”.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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